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Autonomous robotic piece-picking reaches adolescence in turbulent times

2020 was not the ideal year for a maturing automation technology to expand and improve, but it did.
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As 2020 comes to a close, our team at RightHand Robotics (RHR) can’t help but reflect back on this challenging and unexpected year. It would not be hyperbole to say that 2020 was a year like no other, in every sense. Our customers, partners, and the RHR teams certainly experienced this, as did nearly every person in every part of the world. Even if we could set aside extreme events, including record-setting bushfires and hurricanes, and ignore the wild presidential campaign here in the US, the coronavirus pandemic changed everyday life in ways unimaginable.

One immediate impact was on global supply chains, particularly the flow of goods that we all rely on for basic needs. Shortages of toilet paper, cleaning and hygiene supplies were particularly acute and became headline news.

But that wasn’t the only dramatic change. With many people forced to stay at home for extended periods, online ordering spiked. It was as though e-commerce demand instantly jumped five years into the future for all product categories, especially grocery. There were some lighter moments, as when idle homebound people became ardent sourdough and banana bread baking hobbyists, creating flour shortages in the process. But even as people clicked “add to cart” for a higher portion of their retail spend, fulfillment and delivery operations struggled to expand and keep up.

Containing the virus also meant adopting new ways of work in fulfillment centers, too, as retailers adapted to maintain safe, socially distanced working conditions, while keeping products flowing. For automation suppliers, travel restrictions limited the ability to commission new systems and support existing systems just as the need became most pressing.

Robotic piece-picking product and service offerings had to “grow up fast” in order to help make a difference, given this novel and unprecedented work environment.

As we reflect on how the crucible of the pandemic forced the acceleration of the RightPick platform and how we support customers and partners, we can share some highlights:

  • We quickly shifted our own work practices and policies to ensure employee safety at our office, and ended the year with nearly 90% of our team working from home, coordinating new hardware and software developments via a decentralized approach.
  • For our existing customer projects, we expedited the full handoff to operations, and shifted to nearly 100% remote support, for both domestic and international field systems.
  • To make that transition seamless, we increased investment in tools including fleet management, data dashboards, and remote monitoring.
  • We worked closely with integrator partners to simplify integration and installation processes to enable them to serve new customers without RHR physical presence.
  • We also continued our focus on system and process reliability, using measures such as overall equipment effectiveness, to drive improvements that give increasing confidence to our integrator partners and customers.

If one were to draw up a plan for bringing new automation technology to market, you wouldn’t opt to work through your growth stage in the middle of a global pandemic. But, having shown our resilience, we are optimistic that the lessons learned will help us serve customers even better.

Autonomous RightPick systems helped keep the flow of essential items moving and are prepared to tackle new challenges, hopefully in a less dire world, in the coming year. In the process, robotic piece-picking matured from a “brash upstart” to a resource that can be counted on as a steady contributor for fulfillment center operators.

We are grateful to our customers, partners, and RHR employees for their adaptability and collaboration throughout this challenging time.

Onward robots and humans, together! Looking forward to 2021.

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